Independent India celebrated its first World Cup triumph in hockey in 1975, eight years before Kapil Dev and Co hoisted the cricket World Cup at Lord’s. Yet, the Lord’s win is cherished more than the triumph of Ajitpal Singh and his men.
One of the reasons could be that cricketers began to shine, individually, and occasionally as a team, when the proliferation of mass media in the country began. The hockey stars played in fewer tournaments, their victories reduced and there were fewer ‘stars’, compared to cricket.
India’s medal-less campaigns at the two biggest stages – the Olympics and World Cup – (except the 1980 gold-medal finish at the Moscow Olympics) diminished the popularity of the game in the country. In World Cups, especially, India haven’t even qualified for the semi-finals ever since the 1975 triumph.
Harendra Singh and his boys had a chance to rewrite this bit of history when they took on the Netherlands on Thursday. India were on track when Akashdeep Singh (12’) scored off a penalty-corner rebound to take the lead. But Thierry Brinkman (15’) equalised for the Dutch and Mink van der Weerden’s 50th-minute drag-flick was enough to put them in the World Cup semi-finals for the 10th time.
1978: With the ‘75 triumph, India looked to regain their supremacy in world hockey. But after this victory started a period of decline. A dismal seventh-placed finish at the Montreal Olympics followed. In the 1978 World Cup, despite winning three games, India were trounced by Australia 1-6 and lost to the Netherlands 1-3 in a crucial tie. The defeats put them out of semi-final contention. The glory of the ‘75 triumph seemed to have vanished.
1982: India’s arch-rivals Pakistan were among the favourites. But, for the first time, the World Cup was played at home. The prospect of reclaiming the crown in front of thousands of home fans spurred the Indian team. And, they ended up as their pool’s leading goal-scorer, overtaking the powerhouses Australia and Netherlands. But the narrow defeats against the two teams (3-4 against the Netherlands, 1-2 against Australia) prevented India’s progress to the semi-finals.
1986: Two years after missing the semi-final berth by a whisker at the Los Angeles Olympics, India were determined to make amends at the World Cup in London. But in the first-ever World Cup played on astro-turf, India came a cropper. Forget medals or semi-finals; except the 2-0 victory against Canada, India failed to win a game. They finished last in the World Cup, making it their worst campaign.
1990: The Pargat Singh-led side had to win the on-field battles whilst contending with the off-field challenges as well in this World Cup. For, the tournament, for the first time, was held in Pakistan. The hosts’ crowd wasn’t welcoming of the neighbouring nation’s team. There are several anecdotes of the crowd throwing slippers, booing at the Indian team. India failed to win a game in the group stage and finished 10th in the tournament.
1994: After the woeful campaigns in the last two World Cups, India weren’t favourites coming into the tournament. But Jude Felix’s men started on a winning note, beating South Korea 2-0. But they lost to the Netherlands 2-4 and drew with South Africa 2-2. The 1-2 defeat to Germany put them out of the semi-final contention. This was also the last time an Asian nation (Pakistan) won the World Cup.
1998: With Olympic gold medallist Vasudevan Bhasakaran as coach, and Dhanraj Pillay in his prime, India – despite fielding a young team – were hopeful of ending their mediocre run at the World Cup. But they struggled throughout the tournament. Only against New Zealand, they eked out a 1-0 win.
2002: The number of teams were increased to 16 (which has been repeated in the ongoing World Cup). It meant more matches. Indian hockey, at this time, was in the midst of a struggle. Of course, India had stars like Dhanraj Pillay and Jugraj Singh but as a unit, it failed in the World Cup. Their only wins came against Poland and Cuba. Defeats against South Korea and Malaysia hurt India’s chances to progress to the semi-finals. They finished sixth in the eight-team pool and lost another match against New Zealand in the play-offs.
2006: The expectations from India in this tournament were low. For, they had finished last in the FIH Champions Trophy at home a year ago. The absence of drag-flicker Sandeep Singh, who was ruled out due to an injury, was a big blow for India. They lost the first match after conceding a last-minute goal to Germany. They lost three more games and drew against South Africa to finish last in their group.
2010: Hosting a World Cup at home after a 28-year-gap created sufficient buzz ahead of the tournament. India started with a bang, thumping arch-rivals Pakistan 4-1 in their first game. Pakistan being a shadow of their past self notwithstanding, the victory increased the expectations from the home team. India, however, fell short of them. They lost three straight matches and drew against South Africa to lose yet another opportunity to reach the semi-finals. They ended their campaign eighth after losing to Argentina in the play-offs.
2014: The narrative at the 2014 World Cup in The Hague was similar to that of the 1986 World Cup. India had lost all their five group games, making a woeful exit from the London Olympics. The tournament in The Hague, hence, was a chance at redemption. But except the 3-2 triumph against Malaysia, Sardar Singh’s men failed to win a game in the pool stage. India finished the tournament ninth after a consolatory 3-0 win against South Korea.
2018: After missing out in three big tournaments in the same year – Commonwealth Games, Champions Trophy, and most painfully the Asian Games – coach Harendra Singh and his men were primed to do something special in front of thousands of hockey-loving Bhubaneswar folk. At an average age of 23, India was the tournament’s youngest side. The question of lack of experience was posed ahead of the tournament. But the coach had immense faith in his side, which had seven players who had won the 2016 Junior World Cup under his stewardship. Harendra’s men cleared the first hurdle of the tournament – qualifying for the knockouts – sans much trouble. But against an equally talented and more experienced Dutch side in the quarter-final, they lost after conceding a final quarter goal, prolonging India’s wait to enter the last-four of the World Cup.